Credit: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
'We've come a long way in two years': Gabe Sterling reflects on the 2022 elections
LISTEN: With elections in the rearview mirror, state elections officials are lauding record breaking turnout. However, the system is not without its critics, namely Democrats who say the runoff could have disenfranchised some voters. Chief operating officer for the Secretary of State Gabe Sterling spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.
With elections in the rearview mirror, state elections officials are lauding record breaking turnout and what they are calling a system that could be “a model for the nation for election reform.” However, the system, as it stands now, is not without its critics, namely Democrats who say the shortened window for Georgians to cast ballots in the runoff could have disenfranchised some voters. Chief operating officer for the Secretary of State Gabe Sterling helped oversee this process. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.
This interview is edited for length.
Peter Biello: So two years ago, you had some grave concerns about the safety of poll workers, the safety of election officials. Have we come a long way in two years?
Gabe Sterling: Well, absolutely we’ve come a long way in two years. We've seen the volume of issues shrink, especially in Georgia. There are still heightened threat levels, I think, across the board compared to, say, 2018. But it's not nearly as bad as it was in 2020 going into 2021 when the unpleasantness began for Secretary Raffensperger after Nov. 9. I mean, it kicked off a slew of death threats, caravans around his home. The environment today? So much better.
Peter Biello: There is a certain part of the population that is very concerned with fraud, perhaps out of proportion with the amount of fraud that there is. I wanted to ask you about fraud in this past election. Was there fraud or significant fraud in this election?
Gabe Sterling: Well, Peter, one of the things that I really dislike is the use of the word "fraud" itself. It is a charged word because "fraud" sounds like there's a bunch of people who got together in a conspiratorial way to try to defraud the voters of something. What we're talking about here is just illegal voting. And it's normally illegal voting not out of nefariousness, but out of stupidity, or a process isn't done right. Normally, what you see is someone just passed away in between the time they ask for an absentee ballot and the wife or the husband say, “Well, I know how they would have voted. And as a last gesture, I'm gonna do this for them.” That's one thing. Or you vote in absentee ballot, but it doesn't show up in the system in time. Then you go vote in person and like they might cross over in processing that — that way you can have two votes. But it's so rare.
There is a flip side of that coin of people who are worried about voter suppression. Both are demonstrably false, and both are used for political ends to stir up people's emotions, to make them question the outcome of elections, but also the motivations and morality of their opponents. This weaponizing of election administration I'm hoping we can get past. But I was very displeased with Sen. Warnock in his victory speech claiming voter suppression happened. It didn't. And him claiming it undermines efforts to, in a bipartisan way, run elections fairly in this nation. I try not to get angry about it any more because I know it's just sort of baked in the cake that some on the right are going to say "voter fraud" and some on the left are going to say "voter suppression." TIME magazine did a spread talking about voter suppression in Georgia with a photo essay. You had one young lady who was going to school who couldn't figure out transportation, and they were saying she was being suppressed. And then she finally got a ride from her friends to the early voting location. That's just life. That's not suppression.
Peter Biello: But to bring their side of the argument to the table, the Democratic side of the argument to the table is that when it becomes more difficult to vote, when lines are very long, especially in communities of color, in the precincts there, when precincts are taken away and there are fewer places to vote per person in Black communities than in white communities. That's the argument: the argument that it's much harder for this group of people and that amounts to suppression. Is this something you disagree with?
Gabe Sterling: If that were true, then that would be. It's not. It's a lie. It continues to be a lie. And all these decisions are saying, "Georgia does this." Everything you just mentioned — early voting locations, times of early voting, polling locations, check-ins — the state has literally zero to do with that, except in one particular case, in a general election, you have to have one BMD [ballot marking device] for every 250 active voters. That is a state law. Outside of that, everything else is up to the counties and all these communities of color and these counties are run by people of color who are Democrats. Fulton County closed down 13 early voting locations between November and December. That was the problem. A big part of the problem.
Peter Biello: I want to ask you about the runoffs with respect to election workers, because with only four weeks to prepare for the runoff this time around, it was a heavy lift. And they didn't have as much time to prepare as they would have otherwise. And there was a lot more voting crammed into four weeks than the usual nine weeks or the nine weeks they had previously. Do election workers need more time or more resources, or a combination of both to make sure that the election runs smoothly and isn't so stressful for them?
Gabe Sterling: For, I think, 60 or 70 years, we had four-week runoffs when we had runoffs. Secretary Raffensperger in 2018 was elected in a four-week runoff. In fact, Secretary Raffensperger had to go through four elections in a single year that a four-week runoffs in them. And so we know about runoffs in our office, and I think every election you learn from them. The 2018 runoff was very different than the 2022 runoff that was four weeks, because we've had the addition of paper. And by adding paper and adding audits, that put extra stress and strain on the elections workers and the county offices, and pushed back certification by a week, which means you have a week less to build ballots, a week less to get them all done. I think the legislators, I'm pretty sure, will have a debate about what do we do here.
Peter Biello: Is it time to end the runoffs in the way that we do them now and move to something like ranked-choice voting?
Gabe Sterling: I am agnostic. I am not elected [or] a state legislator. It is 100% up to them.
Peter Biello: But in conversations with lawmakers privately — I mean, maybe this is not something you would answer publicly, but I'm curious — what's your feeling on this? You say, you know, from from an insider's perspective, it would be really easy if we just had everybody vote that one time on a ranked-choice ballot and the instant runoff process could cure us of having to do this all over again, whether it's four weeks or nine weeks or whatever amount of time.
Gabe Sterling: One of my big fears with an instant runoff or ranked choice is that it's going to require a lot of voter education to get them to understand what's happening. And let's say you people don't get it and they don't make that second choice because that's something new to them. From our point of view, they’re disenfranchised.
Peter Biello: Let me ask you about the law that governs the Saturday voting this time around because it was in court. A Fulton County judge decided that because the word “runoff” wasn't in the law, this law didn't apply and the state Supreme Court didn't really explain why they agreed with that interpretation. But you mentioned that there might be some reforms coming out of this particular election.
Gabe Sterling: So we think that you should probably go back and look at the law. If you want Saturday voting, just put it in and just allow for it. So that's kind of where we were. That's why after the appeals court, we didn't appeal anymore. Our office didn't.
Peter Biello: That was the party, the GOP.
Gabe Sterling: The party appealed it because we knew what was going to happen. Our concern was that if we kept on appealing, it would cause more confusion. So the second the appeals court said no, we said, “Okay, we're going to work with the counties to make sure we have the most effective use of this day” because we wanted to have more days done.
Peter Biello: The election is sort of behind the voter, but for your office, the secretary of state's office is still going to do an audit and you've got other things to look forward to — dare I say 2024?
Gabe Sterling: Somebody cussed at me on Twitter because I said, “You realize the first votes for 2024 are coming in 14 months.” And they're like, “How dare you bring that up right now?” So we are having to look ahead to that right now as well. And I know the Democrats are pushing to move the election date up, and we have told them for a year that it'd be kind of cool to have the Election Day be sooner for Georgia, for the primary, but this office will do nothing that will hurt the number of delegates or violate the rules of either one of the parties.
Right now, the rules of the DNC say Georgia can't have it and they won't have it on Feb. 13th. The rules that Republicans say you can't have it before March 1, we're not going to have two different primaries because that's a lot of stress and strain on poll workers and the counties. We're going to have one presidential preference primary day and whichever one has the furthest out amount of rules around that, which right now is the Republicans', we will stick with that, which means we will have a March primary.